I am a loser.
Well, I may not be a loser in the most literal sense. I have a steady job, an amazing wife and four kids (read: three cats and a dog). I have two nieces and nephews under the age of eight that all remember my name when I see them despite everyone living in disparate parts of the northeast. I have a grotesquely large television and a…wait, how did I start bragging? No; in truth, I am loser. I’ve lived 28 years on this lonely planet, and have managed to lose enough to fill an extra two decades.
Of my various afflictions and vices, my crippling emotional dependence on my favorite sports teams ranks at the top. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy fleeting moments of joy through the New York Rangers and Syracuse Orange basketball teams, but the rest of my revered clubs leave just a tad to be desired, to put it generously. There is no use in detailing the calamity that consumes every corner of the New York Knickerbockers franchise. Nor is it worthwhile to discuss the incompetence and irrelevance that has plagued the New York Metropolitans throughout the vast majority of my lifetime. Sadly, the most complete house of horrors in which my heart resides is also its primary place of residence: The Buffalo Bills.
This article will not serve as a click-bait slideshow of “Top 10 Ways the Bills Make You Drink!” Either you already know my tales of woe or you don’t care, and good-on-ya either way. This is not a tale of gridiron conquest, but rather a window into what it means to be rendered helpless by an unhealthy obsession with a children’s game.
On August 31, the Buffalo Bills released running back Fred Jackson, ending an eight year run with the franchise that left him third all time in both total rushing yards and 100 yard rushing games, as well as fourth in rushing touchdowns scored, per buffalobills.com. What’s more, Jackson was no first-round-pick tabbed for greatness when he entered the league. This is a player who went undrafted out of Division III Coe College – the very school that Super Bowl-era head coach Marv Levy attended – before bouncing around NFL Europe (which is a real thing) and debuting stateside at the ripe old age of 26. Fast forward to 2015 and Jackson ranks third all time in NFL history for rushing yards among undrafted players. What a tumultuous, illustrious career this man has put together.
The Bills went 51-77 during Jackson’s tenure in Orchard Park.
The narrative would be tragic enough if one only accounted for the disparity between an individual’s success and his team’s futility. Once the drama of an “always down but never out” tale of defying the odds is stacked on top, it’s enough to make The Blind Side look as sympathetic as a David Lynch movie.
Yet Jackson was not only a light in the dark for a fan base rooting on a moribund franchise; he was the public Secretary of Defense against all detractors of the wayward city of Buffalo. While Jackson took every opportunity possible to defend his adopted hometown, he went out of his way to prop up the city in the media and tout its resurgence. Meanwhile, here’s what some other Bills players have said regarding their time in town:
“Coming from Miami, I was used to partying, going out, just having something to do every night. Restaurants, whatever. Going to Buffalo, it was like hitting a brick wall. Like, ‘Damn!’ Can’t go out, can’t do nothing. There’s an Applebee’s, a TGI Friday’s, and they just got a Dave & Busters. They got that, and I’m like, ‘What the?’ And, you know, the women…” (Willis Magahee, 2007 via the Baltimore Sun)
“It might be different in other cities but you know, Buffalo is in Western New York. It, really as far as the layout, the landscape and the area was kind of like the South, in New York. It’s not anything like the city. It’s real laid back in the country, but the people are horrible. As far as getting in trouble in Buffalo or socially, there’s nothing to do. You go to practice and go home.” (Josh Reed, 2012 via Tiger Feed)
In response to a Miami radio host suggesting that some women may be topless (?) at an upcoming Bills home game and that he wouldn’t want to see that: “Not Buffalo women.” (Reggie Bush, 2012 via Big 105.9…wait, Bush has never even played for the Bills! Low blow!)
Essentially, Fred Jackson has served as the Patron Saint of Buffalo for the better part of a decade, and seemingly without warning, he was thrown on the street by the team and the city that he has dedicated his entire career to improving in the face of overwhelming national scorn. Friends like these, huh Gary?
I was at work when I caught wind of the debacle and was…more or less able to keep my emotions together. When I got home that night, I must admit that I lost it. For eight years, I spent every single football Sunday staring hopelessly into a flickering screen that provided me no comfort, solace or excitement. Thrusting myself into the abyss sixteen times year after year after year, Number 22 was the one person looking back at me and telling me it was all worthwhile. His play on the field became inconsequential at a point. This was a man who represented what I crave and obsess over in sports; a sense of pride and a feeling of community.
As the day wore on, the pit in my stomach grew deeper, wider and more sickening. The phrase “it’s a business” is thrown around by professional athletes ad nausea and comes across as a hollow cliche. Yet, at the age of 28, I hadn’t truly internalized how true those words incessantly spouted by athletes nine years my junior are. I felt ill while I laid in bed that night, staring at the ceiling and asking myself; “Is this it?” Most people start out as maniacal sports fans as children, crying at the most benign downturn in a team’s fortunes. Eventually, they mature into adolescence, and maybe game 109 of the baseball season doesn’t seem as important as sneaking a brief, sly grope of your girlfriend’s chest in a movie theater. By the time the college fog wears off, career ambitions start to suck up some of the time that used to be spent on fantasy basketball, and before you know it, you’re at your daughter’s soccer game when the 1 p.m. games kickoff on Sunday.
I never had that slow, steady withdrawal from the field into the real world. If anything, as the world has grown larger before me during my own aging and maturation, I’ve fought like hell to push the walls in and retreat into my comfort zone of hopeless, same-shit-different-year sports teams. Seeing my favorite player in any sport of my lifetime discarded by the franchise he fought so hard to push to success didn’t feel like having a band aid ripped off all at once. It felt like being a child and watching your favorite stuffed animal be decapitated right before your eyes. I felt detached from the most constant and constantly-important aspect of my life.
I am not only a loser. I am also a hostage.
When I woke up on the morning of September 1, I had to peel myself out of bed, as if a stone-cold sober night had left me hungover. I trudged to the bathroom, debating whether or not to listen to Buffalo sports talk radio on my phone as I do every morning while shaving and showering. As has proven true over the years, I found the sound of my own thoughts to be more shrill than anything that my WGR app could offer. So there I stood; my face half-covered in shaving cream, my eyes 3/4’s closed, fumbling for the “play” button I almost didn’t want to find. As I braced for impact, a voice appeared with a most unfamiliar message:
“I’ll call that a win.”
“OK, so we’re at 3-2. Next up; Week six, home for Cincinnati.”
The drive-time radio hosts in Buffalo were not sobbing into their microphones. They were not eulogizing the most beloved athlete their city has seen during this millennium (with all due respect to Dominik Hasek). They were guessing the Bills’ record in light of the announcement that Tyrod Taylor would start the season at quarterback; the 15th man to line up under center to begin a game since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly’s retirement.
“I’m calling Cincinnati a loss.”
This just wasn’t right. I mean, how could you carry on talking up some stupid games when Fred Freaking Jackson had just been…wait, did they just say we’d lose to Cincy? Like Andy Dalton is going to be able to move the ball with Jerry Hughes chewing on his chin strap all day…
Business as usual. Listening to my team be discussed as if it were an entity that continued to exist, constituted by 53 brutish men who did not pack up their lockers and head home after Jackson’s release felt like oxygen was being pumped directly into my lungs. By the end of the day, my closest Bills confidante and I were discussing an especially lewd nickname for Lesean McCoy – you know, the guy starting at running back in place of Fred Jackson.
On September 1, against all odds, the sun rose. It shone. It may have risen late, and it may have emanated an unfamiliar hue, but it’s the only sun I’ve got, right? When my head hit the pillow on September 1, I feared that I would wake as a man without an island or identity. In truth, my ability to continue not only my allegiance, but more importantly my engagement and excitement, might be a more frightening reality than the one I anticipated.
But hey, I’m not just a hostage, after all. I’m a loser, too.